Phoenix, Arizona tourism – a travel guide for pedestrians and others

Phoenix is a city that shouldn’t even exist.

Spread out across more than 14 thousand (!!!) square miles of desert in central Arizona, it’s just massive, dry, criss-crossed with highways and utterly soulless.

When I was growing up I called it “the wasteland”. And I yearned to get out of there.

Maybe other kids grew up wanting to go to Harvard for Med school, or move to LA to be famous. I just wanted to go somewhere with trees. Like real trees. Not cacti. Not oversized bushes.

I wanted to sit in the shade, in a place where not every plant was pointy, and where nature as a whole wasn’t actively trying to kill me.

Therefore, not Phoenix.

Logically, I’ve avoided going back for quite a while. Until today.

Welcome to the Wasteland, foolish bipedal primate

I arrive on a flight from New Orleans and my mom is at the airport, waiting in the cellphone lot, whatever that means.

We head to her house, which is only a 20 minute drive. I pet her dog, and we have some vegetarian food for dinner, then take a walk around the neighborhood.

central phoenix neighborhood

Except for a neighbor who owns a few goats, there’s not much happening. It’s just street after street of boxy little houses, palm trees and American flags.

Ever concerned with planning and logistics, I ask “What’s the coffee situation tomorrow morning?”

My mom doesn’t drink coffee. She seems not to have any bad habits at all, actually.

(I’m just kidding. Coffee is a good habit. Science says so.).

Anyway, her answer is even worse than expected.

“There’s a place called Black Rock about a mile and a half that way, and a place called Dutch Boys about two miles that way. I can drive you if you’d like.”

This is more or less the middle of the city, mind you. She’s just a few blocks from Central Ave. And there’s literally nothing around but little post-war houses and giant churches. Not a Circle-K, not a Safeway, nothing. In Phoenix, “the good life” consists of being as far away from the basic necessities as possible.

How to buy a cold brew in Phoenix: a pedestrian’s guide

The next morning I’m up at 6, as usual, and walking to the coffee place. It’s 33 minutes’ walk, and it turns out the coffee place is basically a drive through. They only have two or three tables outside, next to a walk-up window. At least they’re in the shade of an overhang.

The girl in the window is wearing a green tube top, and she wants to know my whole life story. Do I have any plans for the day? Well, not really. You could say that this is the plan. My 6:00 AM jaunt to the coffee place. Black Rock. This cold brew. That’s the plan.

I pay $6 (or, more accurately, $5 plus $1 tip) and sit down to contemplate the barren, sunbleached mountains that start a few blocks to the north.

Cities like Barcelona end where the mountains begin. Not Phoenix, though. Phoenix just puts a 16-lane highway across the mountains and continues building houses on the same street grid on the other side: stucco houses with a front and back yard, some cul-de-sacs, and a strip mall every three miles.

desert outside scottsdale

Still, at age 40, I can’t think of a single reason why anybody would want to live here. But there are 5 million people in the Phoenix area. And each one, presumably, has a reason.

Back at mom’s house, I propose that we go shopping. Shopping, as I recall, is the one thing people in Phoenix do for fun that involves leaving the house.

(Other popular leisure activities include watching TV, taking drugs, playing X-Box, and doing “yard work”. My parents have always loved “yard work”. Growing up it seemed like torture, to me. And I guess it still does. Yard work. I’ve always thought that living in a house was supposed to make you more comfortable, not create a lot of extra work for you to do outside. But what do I know?)

Anyway – and speaking of drugs – I’ve generally assumed that if I’d ended up as a typical Phoenix guy, and had to choose between drugs and yard work as leisure activities, I’d probably choose drugs.

Luckily I moved away before I had to make that choice. But driving around the North/Central/South Phoenix area, on our way to go shopping, I’m seeing a whole lot of billboards advertising dispensaries.

“Is weed legal now?” I ask.

Mom hems and haws a bit. “I’m not sure.”

(Turns out it is legal. Medicinally and recreationally. There’s even a place selling THC-infused pizzas.)

We hit the Trader Joe’s for some wine in cans, and the Nordstrom, where I buy myself a baseball cap. I’ve been feeling self-conscious, walking around in my poet’s cap like some snob.

The ballcap, I figure, will help me blend in with the locals.

Rucking adventures at 110 degrees Fahrenheit

By 11 AM we’ve exhausted “shopping” as a leisure activity.

We’re back home, and I’m bored.

We’ve still got half an hour until lunch, so I decide to go rucking. Thing is, I don’t have any weights. I figure I can walk around the block with a 3-gallon jug of water on my shoulder, though. It’s 110 degrees – that’s 43.4 for you celsius types – and the effect is invigorating.

“The block”, according to my Fitbit, is about 800 meters around – in Spain, the same-sized block would have four supermarkets, two hotels, six restaurants, four bars, and be home to a couple thousand people stacked in flats several layers deep.

Here, the block is about eight houses and their corresponding yards, laid out in two rows, with an alley in the middle for garbage collection. Maybe 20 or 30 people total. And they’re all inside watching TV.

Energized by carrying those 24lbs of water, I ask my mom if she’s got anything heavier.

“I’ve got a 50-pound bag of fertilizer in the garage if you want.”

Oh hell yeah I want. I do the same block again with 50 pounds in an awkward plastic sack perched on my shoulder. Like I said, invigorating. At 110 degrees, you don’t even realize you’re sweating – the sweat evaporates before you even know it’s there.

When I’m done, I have four glasses of ice water, and we get back in the car to get Mexican food.

Life in the fast lane, surely make you lose your mind…

Driving to lunch, I start to think.

I see a lot of American people, online, talking about how they want to in live walkable cities with great public transport.

They want to skip a few blocks to the tram stop without even consulting a schedule, because what does it matter? There’s a train every five minutes anyway.

Well, that’s definitely possible. I live somewhere like that. But there are a few tradeoffs you’d have to make first. Are you ready to give up your front yard and your back yard? Do you want to have upstairs neighbors, and downstairs neighbors, and neighbors on both the left and right – all separated by hollow walls about four inches thick?

Keep in mind, you’ll probably be hearing these people have sex. Or at least argue. You ready?

Okay, good. But are you also ready to pay $200 bucks a month for a parking space (if you can even afford a car), to live above the loading dock of a supermarket that gets deliveries at 6 AM, to have shady characters drinking beer and peeing on your front step at all hours?

Like I said, tradeoffs.

I live in a place with all those things, and it’s fine. But the public transport comes with a cost. I wade through the puddles of hobo urine to get to the tram stop and watch out for pickpockets on my way to the train station.

You want public transport and “walkability” but with that comes a very dense urban population, and with a very dense urban population comes… a lot of other things you might NOT want.

(Among places I’ve been personally, the big exception I can think of to this grim and gritty picture of urban life I’ve just painted is Bangkok. But then I guess the tradeoff is that you have to live in an absolute monarchy where you can get 43 years in prison for a Facebook post. As cool as Bangkok was, I’ll take Barcelona and the puddles of urine.)

In the end, the Mexican food is good. Chimichangas Rule Everything Around Me, as Wu Tang used to sing. (Or was that not the line?)

Anyway, that’s about the whole routine for my week in Phoenix: early morning trip to the coffee shop, errands in the car when the shops open, carrying heavy things around the neighborhood before lunch, then collapsing into hiding in the cool, dark guest room for a few hours until driving off to dinner, which, logically, is at 5:30 or 6:00 PM.

It’s not exactly fun, per se, but then again… what is fun?

Downtown, where all the lights are bright

I don’t want to say that Phoenix has no public transport.

It’s just that it’s hard to get anywhere because of the long distances involved. (And presumably, you could get heat stroke while waiting 30 minutes for the next bus. Ask me how I know.)

One day, just to see, I decide to take the new tram downtown.

I say “new” because it wasn’t there when I lived in Phoenix. I remember the controversy surrounding its construction, though: aren’t trams a little bit too socialist for a place like America?

Somehow, it got built, though. All one line of it. Take that, capitalism!

Looking at the map, I find that the nearest tram stop is just a 29-minute walk from my mom’s house, which begs the question, “Who in their right mind is going to walk 29 minutes to catch the tram?”

This question is answered when I arrive and get on the train: almost nobody. That is to say, there are people on the train, but most of them don’t appear to be in their right minds.

Otherwise the Valley Metro Rail is fine. There’s a stop about every mile, which is a good thing, because downtown is 12 miles away.

(Avenida Diagonal, which crosses the whole city of Barcelona, is only 11km – about 7 miles – long. I’ve walked it from end to end, which you can read about here. Suffice it to say, Barcelona packs quite a bit more excitement into that much shorter distance.)

Finally, after what seems like an eternity, I get off the tram and walk around.

There’s no pedestrian life at all, here downtown. A few expensive-looking restaurants are full, but other than that the scene is pretty dead.

There’s an Irish bar with a patio, though, so I sit down for a drink.

Behind me, a middle-aged guy is regaling his friends with a series of tall tales about the relaxed sexual mores of some place called “Europe”.

I don’t know where exactly he’s talking about, but from his account it’s definitely not anywhere I’ve been.

Tired of his descriptions of scantily-dressed 16-year-olds, I finish my drink and decide to get some dinner. There’s a sushi and sake place a few blocks away, next to some giant hotels.

You’d think that a baseball stadium, a basketball stadium, a large convention center and several 15-story hotels would create a bit more of a vibe on the street. And you’d be wrong. The streets are mostly empty, and the little blue dot on Google Maps is guiding me in the wrong direction.

Things are easy when you’re big in Japan

Finally, I find the restaurant. Harumi, voted best sushi in Phoenix by the users of Yelp. Harumi, home of the “forbidden” purple rice. I sit at a table near the back.

After a minute, two Japanese guys come in and sit down at the table next to me. They set up a little tripod and a whole streaming thing, and soon it would appear that they’re making fun of our Arizona concept of sushi. They’re reading the Japanese names on the menu in really sarcastic voices, and commenting on every dish as it’s brought out.

Finally I ask them what’s up… the smaller of the two tries to explain in heavily-accented English, and I smile and nod, but the only thing I manage to understand is that 10,000 people are watching. Then they turn the camera on me. Okay, well, now I’m famous in Japan too.

The Japanese streamers leave, and the bill comes. The sushi is expensive, but the wine is just shocking. Having some wine with dinner wouldn’t cause me any financial hardship back in Spain, but here I feel like I need to budget for every glass.

By the time I’m out of the restaurant it’s fully dark.

The lack of pedestrian life during the day turns into quite an active homeless scene at night.

Van Buren St. Polk St. Taylor. Fillmore. Pierce. That string of unmemorable presidents gives name to this series of unmemorable blocks, where junkies push shopping carts through the dark streets and once again, I feel like I’m the only person around who’s in my right mind.

In the desert like Abbey

Another day we head up to Cave Creek, to see the old neighborhood.

I’ve got my friend Betty up there who’s offered to let me stay the night at her place. So my mom drives me through about 20 miles of suburban sprawl out to the desert.

I tell people I’m from Phoenix because it’s easier, but technically the metro area is made up of a few big cities and a lot of smaller towns – all part of the Phoenix – Mesa – Chandler Metropolitan Statistical Area, which in turn is part of the Arizona Sun Corridor Megaregion. All of which is just a long way of saying a large dry expanse of Sonoran Desert… with highways.

So if we’re going to be precise, I spend most of my youth on a dirt road in Scottsdale, with desert on all sides. People think I’m exaggerating when I say I’m from the desert, but I’m not. I used to be able to name a dozen types of cacti. I shot rabbits and packrats for fun when I was a kid. I once shook a scorpion out of my pants before putting them on for school.

You might have heard of Scottsdale as a place of luxury resorts and golf. That’s not what I’m talking about. Where I grew up wasn’t cosmopolitan at all. It was the desert. With highways.

me on browns ranch trail

And driving up from Phoenix, I see that not much has changed out there. There are a few more strip malls in Scottsdale than I remember, and there’s more cowboy-themed nonsense in Cave Creek. But otherwise, it’s the same desert and the same dusty street grid as always.

Carefree’s main tourist attraction is a pile of boulders. Really. Check out the town website if you don’t believe me.

They also have a large sundial. Near the sundial is where we go for dinner – my friend Betty from back in the day, her boyfriend and I. We catch up on some of the gossip from around town: who’s married, who’s divorced. Who’s gone out of business, and who’s turned toxically woke.

If I’d stuck around here, I would have had a very different life. I imagine myself learning to drive a forklift, or using my high school Spanish to get a job selling used pickup trucks on some dusty car lot. Maybe I could be managing a vape shop by now. Or working a jackhammer.

I have no idea, honestly. But my life in Arizona seemed to be going nowhere, so it’s hard for me to imagine myself staying in the desert and somehow becoming a senior partner in a law firm.

But I guess it’d probably be simpler, in some way. I certainly wouldn’t have gone through a long series of Spanish girlfriends, badly paid teaching jobs and immigration lawyers if I’d stayed.

Happiness is a warm gun… Bang, bang!

My friend Betty’s boyfriend is an ex-Marine.

I tell him that if I’d had any sense when I was younger, I would have done what he did. Join up after high school and learn some discipline early on in life.

“Instead”, I sigh, “I moved to Spain and wasted my 20s dating exotic women and drinking fantastic wine in beautiful locations.”

He squints at me. “Actually, that doesn’t sound too bad.”

He’s right, of course. Now that I’ve said it out loud, it doesn’t sound bad at all. Also, I’ve noticed he’s got a large safe in the other room, and I decide to change the subject.

“So is your safe full of gold bars?”

His eyes sparkle. “No. Even better. It’s my gun collection!”

Soon I’m holding a “suppressed” AR-15 in my hands. It’s not loaded – he makes sure to show me the empty chamber before handing it to me.

Suppressed means that it has a silencer on it, “because you’d go deaf if you had to shoot someone here indoors”. He teaches me “trigger discipline”, meaning I’m supposed to keep my index finger outside the trigger guard if I’m not shooting. Also, I notice he takes a step out of the way every time I stupidly wave the barrel in his direction.

That’s the kind of thing I’d’ve learned if I’d joined the Marines, instead of dedicating myself to a life of licentious bohemianism, surrounded by beautiful women and amazing architecture in Spain.

Interestingly, I still look like a pretty friendly, harmless guy, even with an AR-15 in my hands. I’m attempting a tough-guy squint here, and honestly, it’s not working.

Also, I considered not publishing this picture at all. But I’d rather tell the truth than fit into someone’s brand image of Mr Chorizo, the sophisticated hispanophile. This happened, within an hour of me returning to my ancestral homeland, and I was surprised… but I shouldn’t have been.

The next day, we wake up and Betty takes me mountain biking around in the desert where I used to go as a kid. In those days I’d look at one of my dad’s topographical maps to pick up a destination, get on my bike and go exploring. There was a ruined ranch out there – Brown’s Ranch – and a little reservoir called Black Hill Tank, which was actually just a large puddle that would fill up when it rained.

Today, I learned from Wikipedia that Scottsdale has “more destination spas per capita than any other US city”. What is a “destination spa”, exactly? I’m not sure. But I bet it’s a bit more exciting than riding your bike 18 miles to see a puddle.

Here’s a video I made of the whole Phoenix experience…

So that’s the scene. And if you’re still here, I guess it’s time for me to wrap this up.

The ideology of the cancer cell

I put off writing this article for a while, because I can’t come up with a suitable philosophical conclusion to the whole thing. The desert brings out the nihilist in me, as usual, and I can’t think of anything constructive to say.

So let’s talk about Ed Abbey.

I’d mostly forgotten about Abbey, but it turns out my mom still has several of his books that I read and then left with her when I moved abroad.

In case you don’t know: Edward Abbey, 1927-1989. Author, anarchist, and lover of deserts. I honestly remember very little about his books, but he’s got some good quotes.

One that’s always seemed relevant, when thinking about the Phoenix area, is this:

Growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.

Ed Abbey

Actually, he was probably talking about Phoenix when he said it. He spent a lot of time in Arizona, Abbey did. And a lot of time lamenting our state’s constant thirst for development.

Now I don’t have anything against development, per se. But putting 5 million people in the middle of the desert just seems bizarre to me. And the fact that the whole thing depends on people driving around and burning petrol all day long makes it seem ridiculous and impractical in the extreme.

One of Abbey’s books, I think it was Good News, is about an old cowboy type having adventures in a post-apocalyptic Phoenix. I myself used to fantasize about such things, when I was much younger – of the simpler, more meaningful lives that we might have after the collapse of “civilization”.

A couple decades later, though, I don’t know what to think.

Is Western civilization soon going to collapse? Is it already collapsing?

Has it already collapsed, and most of us just haven’t noticed?

Pick your reason: the climate, the rise of China, the decay of morals, whatever…

There are certainly smart people out there arguing that the answer is “yes” to one or more of those questions. Then again, there are people out there who think that Friends was a pretty good TV show. The fact that someone in this wide world of ours is making an argument doesn’t mean much.

So I don’t know. Maybe technology will improve, and my old neighborhood will be transformed into an eco-friendly utopia powered by nuclear fusion. Or maybe, future generations of desert nomads will one day come across the ruins of a Black Rock Coffee half buried in the sands of what was once the Arizona Sun Corridor Megaregion, and be just as mystified as you or I would be if we were to accidentally stumble across Machu Picchu on a hike in the mountains.

For now, it would seem that many Arizonans live lives of great abundance. If your lifestyle allows you to sit in your air-conditioned SUV while a girl in a green tube top serves you $6 cold brew, I guess you’re probably doing just fine. So enjoy.

Anyway, that’s about all I’ve got for today.

I hope you’re doing well, wherever you are out there.

Stay cool.

Yours,

Mr Chorizo AKA Daniel.

P.S. What do you think? Are you polishing your AR-15 in preparation for the zombie apocalypse? Or are you more of a “let’s just welcome the zombies with hugs and bouquets of posies” type person? Let me know, right here in the comments. Thanks!

Daniel
 

How did I end up in Madrid? Why am I still here 12 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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